Archive for September, 2014

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Audiobook recommendation: “Solaris,” by Stanislaw Lem

September 15, 2014

I’ve been away from this blog for over a month and a half, because life has a habit of intervening. We had new windows put in the house and a host of smaller projects, some which we did and some which we hired out. In any case I had to be around a lot of the time and my time was not always my own. Oh, and I set up a couple of web sites for organizations. Maybe more on that in another post.

What compelled me to write tonight, though, is that I tend to listen to audiobooks when traveling alone, or working in the yard or garage. I’m at the beginning of marching band contest season, so I will be spending some time on the road in the car. Music doesn’t keep me as alert when I’m driving through the fields of Indiana as audiobooks do.

Some months ago I set up a Platinum account at Audible.com. I have six credits built up that I haven’t used to select books yet, and I’m behind in my listening, so I may have to downgrade that subscription in a few months.

Sort of on a whim I bought the audiobook of “Solaris,” by Stanislaw Lem, a Polish science fiction author who wrote the book in 1961. It was translated into English in 1970, but Lem himself didn’t care for the translation. (That translation was actually taken from a Polish-to-French translation, with results you might expect. Maybe 80,000 words or so of the telephone game.)

For the 50th anniversary of the publishing of the book a new direct-to-English translation was finally commissioned by Audible, and made by Bill Johnson, with the cooperation of the Lem Estate. It was read by Alessandro Juliani, who I know best as Felix Gaeta in the reimagined Battlestar Galactica. The book is written in the first person, and Juliani reads it as if he is telling you the story himself, in a generally quiet, intimate voice. It seems very appropriate to the tone of the book.

Short synopsis, without spoilers: Psychologist Kris Kelvin is called to the human research station hovering just above the planet Solaris, a very unusual planet in a stable orbit about two stars, one red and one blue-white. The planet has been studied off and on for almost a hundred years, and the research team on the station is now reduced to only three. One of these researchers has asked for Kelvin’s help, but does not disclose why.

The planet is almost completely covered by an ocean of a gelatinous substance. It has been theorized over the years that the ocean is somehow sentient, since it builds huge structures within itself and then destroys them, but no means of communication can be found. The ocean is sometimes responsive to human stimuli and sometimes not, and eventually the teams of researchers lost interest in the planet out of frustration. Various theories about what Solaris is and what it is not have been proposed, but nothing definitive has been determined in decades.

Kelvin finds the two surviving members of the station’s crew to be furtive in answering his questions. Both seem distracted, almost haunted, but are unwilling to say what is bothering them. The third member, the one who called Kelvin in the first place, is dead, apparently at his own hand.

I won’t spoil the story for you. If I say any more, it will spoil it, at least a little. Let it suffice to say that Lem created an amazing world, one that even today, with our supposed advanced technologies, seems fresh and new – and presented problems for humans to deal with on a very personal level as well.

There have been two film versions of the book. One was made in 1972 and was Russian; the other is a 2002 version starring George Clooney and directed by Steven Soderbergh. Both focus on the personal issues of the characters and give very little time to the awesomeness of the planet’s intelligent ocean itself. I’m not terribly interested in seeing either; this happens with movies very often – we must make movies that are “character-driven,” even if we have to distort the science terribly to do so.

I’ve not finished the audiobook yet, but I think it is so good that I recommend it even before finishing it. I don’t know how the story ends, myself, at least not yet. I’ve toyed with ideas of how humans might deal with extraterrestrial intelligence that is completely impossible to understand myself. Most aliens are people in rubber masks, even in “hard” science fiction books. What happens if what we find is so alien as to be impossible to communicate with?

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